“Portrait of Arnold Schoenberg” (1917), Egon Schiele

Schoenberg’s “Weihnachtsmusik” (“Christmas Music”): A Chamber Fantasia

As dean of the Second Viennese School, Arnold Schoenberg was one of the twentieth century’s greatest exponents of atonal music. Yet, Schoenberg resisted dogma. Long after developing his twelve-tone system, he asserted that “there is still much good music to be written in C major.”

Weihnachtsmusik (“Christmas Music”) is one of the rare pieces in which Schoenberg embraces the tonal consonance of C major. Composed in 1921, the brief fantasia is scored for a chamber ensemble consisting of piano, string trio, and harmonium. It begins with the 1599 hymn tune, Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming, harmonized by Michael Praetorius in 1609, and morphs into fragments of Silent Night. As the piece unfolds, the two melodies enter into a dreamy contrapuntal dialogue. Kyle Gann points out that both begin with the same sequence of four pitches (G-A-G-E). To my ear, there are also subtle intimations of Joy to the World, and echoes of the chamber music of Brahms.